“Frankenweenie,” written by Leonard Ripps (based on screenplay by), Tim Burton (based on an original idea by) and John August (screenplay), directed by Burton, 87 minutes, rated PG.
In 1984, before Tim Burton made “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Sleepy Hollow,” or any number of Johnny Depp movies, he made a 29-minute short film called “Frankenweenie,” about a young boy trying to bring his dog back from the dead.
In 2012, Burton has revisited “Frankenweenie,” which some might consider a return to form for the director. I, on the other hand, consider Burton’s latest effort a vision fully realized 28 years after it was conceived.
The film follows Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan), a young boy who’s a social outcast in his school full of, well, social outcasts. Obsessed with films and science experiments, Victor doesn’t have friends outside of the family dog, Sparky.
When his father pushes Victor into playing baseball, he treats it not as a sport, but as a science experiment, testing and altering his methods with each swing in his first game. Inevitably, he finds success, crushing the ball into the street. Sadly, Sparky runs after the ball, and is struck dead by a car.
With his interest in reanimation, and his love for his dog, Victor finds the key to bringing his best friend back to life. As Victor’s secret gets out, and with a highly anticipated science fair just around the corner, Victor’s classmates set out to reproduce the experiment with their own dead animals. Unlike Sparky, however, they don’t come back as the pets they once were, but as monsters. Some big, some small, but all very amusing.
As with any stop-motion film baring Burton’s name, comparisons to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” are bound to arise. The most apparent similarity, and there are more than a few, is in the character designs. The long, lanky Victor, and his horror-inspired classmates, would be a natural fit in the Halloween Town Burton and director Henry Selick envisioned in 1993.
And, much like “Nightmare,” “Frankenweenie” features animation that is haunting yet playful, with a just hint of the macabre, madness and humor. The black-and-white cinematography is outstanding, harking back to an era of cinema that Burton grew up with. That’s part of the fun, here. He’s paying homage to those movies that inspired him to be a filmmaker, from Universal horror and Hammer movies, to the monster matinees of his childhood.
The film also has a heart. The movie will toy with your emotions and bring animal lovers to the brink of tears in a way that feels less contrived than most animated films, which usually take cheap shots seeking waterworks from an audience with its guard down.
And, unlike those films, “Frankenweenie” just feels honest, all the way through. It’s a work of passion from Burton. It’s a filmmaker digging into his past, and more than anything, it reminds you just how good of a filmmaker he is.